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Whim is the oldest sugar plantation museum in the Virgin Islands. Its purpose is to increase the understanding of a colonial sugar plantation to both island residents and visitors. Exhibits and guided tours are designed to interpret the economics of a plantation, explain the procedures used in the cultivation and processing of sugar, and describe the everyday life of the people who lived and worked there.
Estate Whim is typical of the agricultural plantations originally laid out in the 1730's by the Danish West Indian Company. The first records of ownership were in 1743, and show cotton as being grown on the estate. By 1754, sugar had apparently become the main crop and so it continued until the 1920's, when sugar, long since an unprofitable industry on the island, gave way to cattle.
In 1932, the United States federal government purchased the entire plantation. For the next fifteen years, a largely unsuccessful attempt was made to introduce the homesteading program to St. Croix, and Whim was one of the areas chosen for this trial. Even though a failure in many ways, this venture in homesteading did serve to break up persistent, large-acreage ownership and started a trend of small, private land holdings that continues throughout the island today.
Twelve acres containing the remains of most of the original plantation buildings were leased to the Landmarks Society for management in 1954.
There are four main divisions of work on which the museum concentrates, and each involves public participation. The most visible endeavor is in the interpretation and organization of exhibits utilizing all of the buildings and equipment which together formed an 1800's island sugar plantation. These include the Great House, cookhouse, privy/bath house, three kinds of cane processing mills (animal, wind, and steam), a watchhouse, a carriage house and several other foundations such as the workers' houses and factory.
As a gift horse, Whim was a tragic sight in 1954: weed and vine wrapped, its rotting roof gave hundreds of fruit bats and Jack Spaniards access to sanctuary in the high reaches, while mice and centipedes dominated the floors. It was eight long years before anyone could say, "Whim, as it now stands, is beautiful to behold."
Wrestling the Great House from the ruins was a labor of love for residents of all talents. William Thayer made restoration possible with his architectural skills. Harry Neumann spent years on refinishing the interior details and then months on his hands and knees applying coconut oil to the old floors. Stone masons, gardeners, painters, and dozens of other workers contributed time, hard work and money to restore the Great House. By 1961, Director Cyril Marshall was able to declare it "beautiful to behold." Whim was ready for the furnishings and artifacts one sees today.
No original furniture from plantation days was found at the Whim Great House, when the Municipal Council arranged for it be placed in the care of the Society. The style was known however, for most of the plantation homes still standing had antiques of their own. Most of the antiques in Whim today were purchased from or donated by island families. Some of the larger items were bought when the Ingvoldstad's famous Pentheny Hotel in Christiansted closed and put its furnishings up for auction in 1962 (Ingvoldstads sold many items at reduced prices for the Society's benefit). The Selections Committee members were quite talented: Mrs. M. K. Armstrong knew the island homes; Joseph Mullen, a winter resident on St. Croix, was an Interior Decorator; Mrs. William deMott had been an antiques dealer. Acquisitions continue today with professional appraisals by staff or knowledgeable trustees, or by selected antiques dealers.
For its first three decades as a museum, Whim visitors entered by the eastern doorway, one of four main entryways, and heard about the furniture. As more information was gathered from historical records, the emphasis was changed to give information about owners and workers and the events of their days. The Tour Guides say "We like the idea of bringing visitors in the south door of the house rather than the front which, in the past, only the owner or an official visitor would use." In colonial times, friends would ride in from the avenue and around the Great House to the stable area on the south side, where tamarind trees could shade the horses.
Entering by the southern access allows the Guides to greet guests and talk about St. Croix and sugar plantations in general before they enter the main house. This access goes into an 1890's addition to the Great House. It was the holding kitchen where food was kept until served and is now called the Orientation Room. This room includes a modem cutaway model of a wind mill, authentic rum barrels and a copy of the 1794 Oxholm map of St. Croix, showing all the plantations of that day. Along the wall, are nine rare William Clark prints from Antigua, of the sugar cane process from land preparation to distillation into rum, molasses and sugar. The prints were a gift of Fairleigh Dickinson, showing work on four different estates and one scene at Willoughby Bay, where men are loading barrels into shallow long boats. The arduousness of the work is quite evident. The oldest piece of furniture the Society has is here, the black oak armchair or wainscott, a late 17th century English chair. The red oak seat is a recent replacement.